Impact News sat down with Dan Rattigan, SU Education Officer, to discuss his year in office.
How have you found you first year in office?
Fantastic. It’s really flown by and the learning curve you have to go on between July and August before it all starts in September is massive. But you do learn really quickly.
So you don’t feel out of place, or condescended to, as the student representative for Education?
No, I’d actually say the opposite. That was one of my biggest worries at first, whether you’re just the token student in the room, which is a valid question to have when you’re in a room with people with twenty years of experience and you’re just there with six months. But your voice carries more weight in the room than anyone else’s. I think I speak on behalf of all of us who go to University meetings: we don’t try to speak on behalf of students unless we have to. For example, I got asked a question on module credits and what people prefer but I wasn’t prepared to give that, and instead we’ve put a survey out. If I gave an answer, I’d be dictating rather than representing.
“At the moment, the University spends 12% of its library resource of book allowance on core module reading lists”
One of the four points you aimed to tackle in your manifesto was ‘transparency’. Do you think you’ve achieved this, and how often do you think students still get something out a module that they weren’t expecting?
Just these past couple of weeks I’ve been visiting the heads of each school, 23 schools, along with the Director of Teaching at each school. At the moment the University has a policy that it will publish SEM [Student Evaluation of Module] data which, until a couple of years ago, wasn’t policy. Sixteen Head of Schools so far have agreed to publish their SEM data through Moodle. Moodle is the key bit to transparency because a lot of schools published the data already, but if they do so in the back page of a course you’ve already finished then who’s going to look at it? It will now be a central page on Moodle which students can look at when choosing their modules.
The second part of transparency is on hidden course fees, based on core book fees for your module. At the moment the University spends 12% of its library resource of book allowance on core modules reading lists. They’ve agreed this year to up that to 35-50% on core modules for the next couple of years.
“To me, the real issue is that fees went up to £9,000. They tripled, but resources didn’t triple”
But with courses across the University of Nottingham varying fairly wildly in expenses, contact hours and much more: do you think there’s discrepancy between what students are getting for their money when they’re all set at the same fee price?
Course rates are always going to vary in terms of how much it costs the University to run them. I’m not exactly sure of figures but I know that running a Veterinary Medicine course, which is the most expensive course at University, is much more than running a course in Social Sciences, or Arts, or Law. To me, the real issue is that fees went up to £9000. They tripled, but resources didn’t triple. In fact often they got less – so it feels like much more of a burden on students. What you can do is impact university resources centrally, so we have a new Teaching Building going up behind Hallward, building the David Ross sports village. It’s making sure every student here has access to the same things, the same study material, the same Portland, which is another major renovation happening at the moment.
But I’m right in thinking the £9,000 figure implemented by the government is just a cap, so is it fair, when a veterinary course, for example, costs twice or three times as much to run, to charge the students the same as something which costs three times less?
Well it’s a cap for a reason. It’s a cap to stop them charging more for certain courses, while there is no cap on international fees. Is it fair? No it’s not fair, I don’t think it’s fair, but it’s also important to know that in the sector, if we were to charge less, if a History degree was £7,000 for example, you’d get an even greater disparity because of an imbalance of people choosing one over the other.
“There will potentially be a rise in tuition fees across the sector with the proviso from 2018 that the ‘teaching excellence’ of the insititution can be used to differentiate fees”
It’s the nature of the industry that if Nottingham as a whole charged less for its courses it’d be seen as a less valuable institution, whereas right now it’s number one for graduate employers. It’s going to be interesting when the Teaching Excellence Framework comes in, because what that means is that universities can charge with inflation, so there will potentially be a rise in tuition fees across the sector with the proviso from 2018 that the ‘teaching excellence’ of the institution can be used to differentiate fees, which they haven’t been able to do so far. It’s terrible, in my opinion, and NUS have the line on it that “quality doesn’t grow on fees”, but I think that’s where the sector’s going.
How have students received more constructive feedback to illuminate their grades while you were in office?
Constructive feedback was something I took to both students and staff, but it became a really difficult thing to organise. More constructive feedback, definitely. Standardisation of feedback, no. In a year or two, submission of lab reports and essays will be purely online. Some schools do it already. It’s something the University is looking into. The Pro-Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning is pushing very hard for it. Submission is the first part of standardisation, and feedback is the second.
Previous Education Officer Adam BK said at this time last year that the optimum amount of lectures being recorded would be 85%. How close have we made it to that figure in the 12 months since?
Not close at all. I know that in Adam’s year, there was a Teaching and Learning Environment Group set up with the Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning where the proposal for the process of lectures being fully recorded went to them and it didn’t go through. Between six and ten million per year is what they floated it at to the University Executive Board, and they rejected it on the basis that the amount of resources it would take to have it all online, along with copyright issues around sensitive material, meant there was a big stall on it.
What we’re trying to do now is put it back on the agenda. I have a good relationship with the PVC for Education who I see two or three times a week, and I’m looking at new ways to get it back on the map. I guarantee it will be on everyone’s manifesto because it’s the number one thing students want. University of Manchester found it didn’t affect attendance at all. A few other universities like Bristol have also implemented it, so again it’s putting the pressure on the University to implement it. It won’t be finished in my time, but they want to improve their NSS Scores, and they need to increase accessibility and I’m pressing very hard on it.
George Green Library opened while you were in office, how do you think that has impacted upon students?
George Green is a really interesting one in that it opened and got a massive reception. The issue is that it only half opened, and the second half is really delayed and causing tonnes of issues, especially in the coming exam period. It’s overpopulated at the moment. It’s meant to have been finished in September and it’s still being built. The fact they’re still landscaping means accessibility is terrible, so I’m not happy. It meant we launched a campaign during exam period called ‘Study Anywhere’, and we did it with the University. It meant any room not timetabled for exams was left unlocked: study rooms, seminar rooms, lecture theatres. I’d rather we didn’t have to do it because George Green was finished, but it’s not.
“The nature of education is that nothing gets done in the calendar year”
Surely though, although it’s become an issue, the overpopulation is testament to a positive reception?
I’ve had largely positive feedback. One or two students mentioned that the café there is very busy because it’s a very nice café. It’s taken all of the footfall from Coates Café, which means it’s really busy and quite noisy and that’s an issue for students. It won’t be when the other half opens up, but it is now, and because it’s so open plan it goes right up to the silent section. I’ve said that we shouldn’t let that happen in the new Teaching Building. Let’s not put a massive café in the middle and ruin the point of it. While student feedback is good, it’s not all good, and we’ve had to react to the parts that aren’t.
You rightly observed in your manifesto that joint honours students can experience a frustrating lack of communication between schools: how have you closed that gap?
That’s my proudest part this year. Last year the Students’ Union commissioned a survey to look at the management, organisation and delivery of joint honours courses: three strands. Management and organisation focussed on the fact there’s so much discrepancy between the schools – Maths and Philosophy for example are very different, with very different ethoses, and every school has its own autonomy, but that doesn’t play very well for students. I’ve brought that up this year and it’s on the University’s Transforming Teaching Agenda, and there’s a strong focus on looking at the structure of joint honours courses. I’m on a working group, established this term, that’s meeting firstly in March to get things like two tutors for every student, and pastoral support – to look after students. NSS tells you that joint honours students don’t feel like they’re getting the same experience as single honours and looks at what we can do on the ground now to support these students, not just those in a couple of years.
So to wrap up: what words of advice would you give to the next Officer, and what do you hope they’ll pick up that you’ve left unfinished?
The nature of education is that nothing gets done in the calendar year. I picked the lecture recording up from Adam and I hope I’ll leave the next Officer in a great place for that because the University knows. Hopefully by then the Joint Honours Working Group will have some real conclusion to take actions forward and I want to make sure this person is on the new Teaching Building committee, and that everything they do is what students want.
Words of advice are to keep up relationships with members of the University. Don’t just rile against the University because they have all the power. Your voice is very much heard in the room so use it wisely, as long as you base it on the opinions of students. If you don’t, you end up in the tricky situation of seeming to be representative, but you’re really just dictating what’s going to happen. Wherever the University is making a decision that affects students, students should be there.
Image: Impact Images Team